Publication date: November 1939
Author: Bob Kane
Batman’s origin story.
Is there really a need to summarize this? Is there a person on earth who recognizes Batman but doesn’t know how he came to be? The only real interest here lies in the original details. Bruce’s parents are taking him home from a movie, not the opera; they’re shot by a random criminal, nobody important; etc., etc. Even then, the particulars don’t really matter. What matters is the mythic origins. As I wrote in my introduction to this column, Batman is only Batman because he chooses to be. Unlike every other superhero, he wasn’t given anything–something was taken from him. Because of his loss, he vows vengeance not on one criminal but on all of them. The weeping little boy promising this becomes the strange, dedicated, resilient man who will spend his entire adult life trying to accomplish it. In a way it’s every twelve-year-old boy’s fantasy: a solemn duty, an early assumption to manhood… but a fantasy manhood, not of adult responsiblity, but of play. Fighting, staying up all night… and all for a noble cause.
Not to mention the costume. Batman’s the only superhero I know of who decides he needs a disguise not because his identity needs to be hidden to protect the people he loves–his parents are dead and he doesn’t appear to have anybody important in his life–but because it will help his task if he is able to strike fear into the hearts of criminals.
It’s the fact that Batman is in many ways as screwed up as the criminally insane villains he fights that helps to make the story so compelling. No normal individual could dedicate themselves so thoroughly to science and athleticism and nightly patrols; there’s a sick drive at the heart of Batman, a never-fulfilled need to bring order out of chaos, good out of evil. Behind every punch is a little kid who wants his mom and dad. It’s strange and sad and profoundly fucked up, and it’s what drives Batman stories toward the bizarre.
For instance, this issue features a blimp attacking the city with laser beams.
Our story proper opens as Wayne and other people out on the streets of Manhattan notice an odd, red ship floating above the city. Red beams of light pour out of it, blinding people in the street. Buildings begin to crumble and fall. Panic engulfs the crowd. Before leaving, the craft emits a voice: “We come to rule the world,” it says. “Do not resist us or the rays strike again. We, the Scarlet Horde, warn you…”
After helping with the rescue effort (“thousands dead,” says the radio), Wayne returns home. Here we see the first Bat-cave like area in his house: a secret lab, hidden behind a panel in the wall. He checks his filing cabinet (this was before the Bat-computer was invented), and finds a clipping about Prof. Carl Kruger, who had spent time in an asylum for a Napoleon complex, and who was working on a new death ray… Bruce changes and Batman speeds towards Kruger’s home, where I assume he’ll find the dirigible parked in the driveway.
The Batman observes through a window the meeting of the “Secret Horde,” Kruger and three scientists, discussing their plans for world domination. Apparently they have an army two thousand strong, which they plan to use to rob banks during the next dirigible attack, in order to pay for more engines of war. Kruger, of course, has a picture of Napoleon on his wall, and dresses similar to the great French conqueror. See what I said about mental illness?
Batman attacks, only to find that Kruger has sealed himself behind a pane of thick glass. Meanwhile, a hand with a gun sneaks out from behind the Napoleon painting. Batman is captured! As is already becoming the usual thing, they tie him up with rope and leave him to die via timed death trap, in this case a bomb set to blow up the house in five minutes. Kruger gloats and leaves. Thankfully, Batman has gotten a lot smarter, and simply keeps a knife in his boot, which he uses to cut himself free. (Future villains take note: always search the captive for means of escape before activating the slow-moving death trap and leaving the room.)
Batman’s next step is to threaten one of the other members of the Secret Horde. Predictably, the man drives out to the secret hangar of the dirigible, with Batman following in his plane.
Batman busts inside, gasses the soldiers, and shoots the ray gun machines, destroying them all. Next he goes to attack the dirigible with an ax, but Krugman shoots him in the back! Krugman goes to get the one remaining ray gun, and uses it to disintegrate Batman’s body!
This marks the end of Baturdays. It’s been a fantastic journey and we all learned a lot. I’m sure there’s no more of this comic so I’ll just be on my wa–
No, wait! Batman’s still alive! His bullet-proof vest saved his life, and then he switched outfits with a guard and escaped to his Bat-plane. (This does mean that he left an unconscious guard to be vaporized… Oh well.)
Batman works all night in his lab, concocting a new formula, which he then sprays all over the Bat-plane. The next day, when the dirigible strikes, Batman is ready! His new paint-job nullifies the effects of the death ray. Kruger, seeing that things are going badly, ejects in his own prop plane. The Batman swings onto it with his silk rope and gasses the villain. With the pilot unconscious, the plane crashes into the harbor. Kruger is killed, the army is rounded up, and Bruce Wayne gets to smoke his pipe by the radio and feel smug.
This is probably the least interesting story so far. We never really get into Kruger’s head, Batman never runs into much trouble. The origin story is much more compelling. It’s clear that just because you have a great concept doesn’t mean that any old execution will work. You have to play to your character’s strengths, and this one just doesn’t.
Tune in next week for Detective Comics #34 as Baturdays reaches the end of 1939.